The summer of 265BC, in what is now northern Italy. Years of peace had lulled the House of Julii's Generals into a false sense of security: the supposedly troublesome Gauls seemed occupied elsewhere, and life was good for upstanding Romans. But the Senate had other ideas, and sent the Julii north and west to expand Rome's borders. Like the callow, untested soldiers they were, the Julii forces pushed forward, supposing the limited Gaulish resistance to be all that stood between them and domination of the barbarians. When the baying, screaming warrior bands came charging at them through the Alpine passes, the first of many hard lessons was learned.
For any sequel to make its previous title look like a child's toy is an admirable goal. If the title in question achieved 93% just two years previously, and was ranked as PC Gamer's favourite title of the year, that goal might seem a particularly unlikely one. Yet, Rome does just that to Medieval: Total War. It's more challenging in just the right way: not more difficult, but more demanding of your abilities as a General and manager. Large-scale strategic challenge, management and balance of cities and statistics; growth and development of something that becomes uniquely yours; tactical use of what you've made; and the visceral thrill of all-action battle with lives, land and power at stake... But Rome is more than a vast pool of other people's ideas. Rome is beautiful, consistent and a truly great game.
The dynamics and goals remain simple enough: raise armies, develop your cities and trample your enemies - the ultimate aim of Rome itself. But the Total War masterstroke of having two worlds - the massive-scale, turn-based campaign level and the fully 3D environments in which battle takes place - works better than ever. The scale, even though the map covers a vaguely identical area to Medieval's, seems far larger, the battlefields more epic. When armies clash, the camera almost literally zooms into the campaign map to focus on the battlefield, giving a far greater sense of connection between the game's two layers. If the map says a clash takes place next to a coast, or in mountainous foothills, or near a road, these physical landmarks are correctly represented. Armies face each other according to their approach on the campaign map. And because of this precision there's theoretically a near-limitless number of battle maps. No two battles need be even similar, let alone the same.
But the first decision is to choose which faction you will control in your struggle to dominate all of Rome. You are responsible not for an individual, but for the foreign policy of an entire dynasty. At first, you can only take command of one of the three Roman families vying for power and influence. Crush another faction, though - be it the Gauls, Germans or six others - and they'll be available for your use in the next game.
Crucially, and most important of Rome's revolutions, the campaign map is no longer a chessboard of separate provincial blocks through which agents, ships and armies move one square at a time. Every unit has a movement allowance per turn, and a small area of influence around itself. To attack another army, your force must move close to it, while a besieging army must be literally outside the gates.
The strategic implications of this are enormous. You start to think not in terms of national borders - except in diplomatic terms - but with regard to defensive positions, sneak attacks through mountain passes, spies looking out for marauding armies and fast-moving cavalry forces to intercept invaders. In other words, just how you imagine a real commander might have to think. Military tactics which were previously limited to the battle map are extended to the scale of the campaign map, and increased in subtlety.
Your territory is thus harder to defend, mitigating against the Medieval tactic of amassing huge armies in a few vulnerable provinces, sitting back and lighting your pipe. On the harder difficulty settings, AI enemies will even send armies in by sea, so awareness on your part of the movement of enemy forces and their commitment will be an advantage. Your spies tell you the Gauls are bogged down in a campaign against the Spanish? Then their eastern provinces are likely to be vulnerable. Or, if those same tricky barbarians had the gall to charge through the Alps, a particularly cunning commander might well dispatch a sudden strike upon the unsuspecting golden beaches of France.
Managing your empire is now a question of cities, one to a province. The mechanics of managing these cities reflect the increasing influence of Civilization on Total War. Three rates must be nutured: population growth, civil happiness and income. Dozens of factors come into play, from the obvious - tax rates, entertainment, availability of food, troop presence - to the more subtle, such as recruitment, types of temple present and culture clashes with occupying forces. Keep growth at a couple of per cent, happiness over 100% and income in the black and you'll have a safe, productive city. However, it's a slightly over-complex and under-explained system, and your first few hours will be a little puzzling in this area. Automanagement is an option, but it's an uncomfortable one if you don't understand how it's being done. Nevertheless, you'll soon realise that cities are less likely than in Medieval to be lost as a result of the unhappiness of their citizens, and they generally bumble along without too much tinkering.